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The current show at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) with the poetic title of "Power Objects: The Future Has a Primitive Heart" provides us with a wonderful example of what it means to build an art collection with a singular vision. The intent of this installation is to build a bridge between our modern present and our dimly lit ancient past. Spending time with this art will make you wonder if anything substantial has changed with what it means to be human between now and the time our our dark prehistory.
If anything the role of art making and art collecting has some how remained the constant according to the written statement that accompanies this show:
"The French philosopher George Bataille said that at the heart of existence, we find art, and we find poetry and we find a multitude of religions. Since the dawn of human consciousness we have had the desire for a dazzling feeling of richness, for the feeling of wonder at the world and the experience of life. Art is the foundation for communication among individuals of this feeling of wonder. From the first cave paintings and fertility statues, to 'Post-Internet' art, the objective of both the artist and the viewer has been the same over 17,000 years. Art objects are in fact power objects – objects designed to express and connect to the sublime, the transcendental, the most powerful forces and instincts that animate human existence."
Mariano Chavez is a stand-out artist in this grouping. His piece "First Date" depicts what looks like a page taken straight out of a dusty old science textbook in a chapter exploring the theory of evolution. Chavez has added weird blue spheres and flower bouquets into the hands of our primal ancestors to suggest some kind of cultural transaction may be going off the rails. In a sculpted mask made from rattlesnake skin, Chavez uses the common primitive motif of the mask in a collaboration with nature using the remains of a snakes accidental production of art material.
Artist Daniel Douke has created "iMac Box" which looks at first glance exactly like what the title suggests- until you walk around to the back and see that it is actually canvas stretched over an wooden armature and painted to fool the viewer. This kind of trompe l'oeil painting goes back to 19th century painters like William Harnet and John Peto, who took the same pleasure in making fools of us with their supreme skill to do magic with paint. In another context this piece may have seemed trite but here among art that is making connections with the art of our ancient past that served a religious ritualistic function, I begin to wonder about my extreme compulsion to check my email and Facebook pages.
Rachel Niffenegger is represented by three "beautiful" pieces hanging together in the corridor on the upper floor of the gallery. I am using quotation marks because though Niffenegger's technique of mixed media using such odd combinations as water color, cloth, wax and candle smoke is masterful and mysterious, the images themselves are something like rotting corpses or zombie portraits. This tension between creepy image and beautiful technique makes for a hauntingly powerful experience for the viewer.
There are many wonderful pieces by 17 different artists all from the art collection of Joshua Rogers and Lesley Weisenbacher, who make their home in Chicago. It is very interesting to see art collectors that are making their private collection public by loaning it to institutions like the UICA. In doing so, they give art collectors a glimpse at what it might look like to take their own practice of buying art to the next level. This collection makes a powerful statement about how art itself may carry a sort of mystical charge that can be transmitted to the sensitive viewer.
Could it be that the in an age when many have chosen to put distance between their inherited religious cultures that they may now find connection to the spiritual in the art gallery rather than the mosque, the temple or the church?